Writing and Racial Identity Versus the Spinrave

This is writer Nisi Shawl’s last post for Booklifenow, and I hope you’ll join me in thanking her for her great posts, this one included. Nisi is the co-author of Writing the Other, with Cynthia Ward, who will be contributing a last post later this week. I’m very grateful to both of them for such thoughtful and useful words. – Jeff

A subscriber to the Carl Brandon Society list serve asked for specific criticisms of the Spinrave recently published in Asimov’s SF Magazine. That is work. Just reading it is an effort, let alone trying to translate into something resembling sense. Hence my response below to the request for “specific criticism”:

“Okay, I would take the time to analyze the article if someone paid me for it. My rate is $50/hour.

“As a sort of free sample, I’ll say I agree essentially with (another poster to the list serve): consider the source. The source being Norman Spinrad, who not only doesn’t know anything about the subject upon which he bloviates for page upon page, but who seems to be inordinately proud of his ignorance. Norman is like this. My short response: tldr.

“I will also add that his positioning of Mike Resnick, a very good writer, as an African writer, is so insanely disorienting as to induce vomiting. And comparing him to Octavia E. Butler, who never, as far as I am aware, ever claimed to be an African writer, is an action on a par with opening a chest full of tokens and rummaging around blindfolded in it, and pulling one out at random to toss onto the hearth of rhetoric.”

The subscriber requesting explication declined my help. He thought my fee was too high—though another poster advised me to double it—and made do with the numerous other posts available on the subject.

Among them we find N.K. Jemisin, who deals with one specific point. It takes her 500 words, not counting her contributions to the post’s comment threads. Imagine if she had attempted to render the entire Spinrave comprehensible. How many short stories and/or novels of hers would we be doing without while she whacked her way through his thorny densenesses?

My offer stands.

Ante Spinrave, I expected to devote the whole of this final guest post for Booklife to analyzing a panel I recently pulled off at Radcon, an SF convention held in Eastern Washington. The panel was titled “Writing and Racial Identity.” Besides myself the participants were Eileen Gunn, Alma Alexander, and Bobbie Benton-Hull. Here’s the description I gave programming:

“What does your race have to do with what you write? Depending on your race, are certain topics forbidden to you? Obligatory? None of the above? If your race matters, how do you know what it is? By what people see when they look at you, or by what you know of your genetic background? By your cultural upbringing? By what you write?”

We had a grandly civil hour-long discussion about how our racial identities did and did not contribute to what we wrote, did and did not determine what we wrote, about how we dealt with others’ expectations of us as writers based on what they knew and/or assumed about our racial identities, how we constructed those identities for ourselves with our writing and in other ways. I loved that we spoke as equals, according each other and the subject all due and appropriate respect.

Because it is a complex subject, one that deserves careful thought.

One white panelist related a classroom encounter with Faulkner in which her instructor held up this famous white male’s avoidance of a black female character’s interior life as an ideal to emulate; to write some things she has written, the panelist has had to unlearn what she’d been taught. Another spoke movingly of the ethnic and religious distinctions that formed the core of her upbringing in Central Europe. I wondered aloud if my difficulty placing stories with white protagonists was due to editors wanting “more black for their buck;” that felt risky to me, since one of the field’s top editors sat in the audience’s front row, not five feet from my face.

Our fourth panelist had been raised as an American Indian and spent her life knowing absolutely that this was who and what she was. Then she discovered through genetic testing that her biological heritage is a mix European and Sub-Saharan African. No American Indian. She still struggled with integrating this knowledge at the time of the panel, framing her thoughts on her identity as a question, referencing a female character in the movie “Dances with Wolves.”

It was all most interesting to me. Way more interesting than the Spinrave. In my description and in my moderation I had aimed to show that race is an issue that affects writers of all backgrounds, all races, that racial identity is labile, is inflected by more than one sort of information, and in turn has complex and complicating effects on what we say, how we say it, who we say it to….We touched on each of these subjects with a sure touch, though in some instances only a brief one. There’s so much to talk about.

There are so many smart people to include in the discussion. I want to hold this panel again someday soon. Maybe at WisCon? The panel will give its participants and our audience much to think about. And they will think, and do research, and speak carefully. And it will make sense.

Critics on rookie mistakes, and how to avoid them when submitting your book for review

Reviewers are of vital importance when it comes to getting the word out about your book. Your novel might be the next great American classic, but if no one reviews it then its next stop could be the remainder bin. Literary critics, both offline and on, already have your prospective audience’s attention, so what can you do to guarantee that they focus it on your book?

Well, unfortunately, the short answer is that you can’t. There’s no way of ensuring that a critic reviews your book. However, with just a little research, you can avoid making rookie mistakes that keep some books from even being considered. I spoke with several critics today and asked them to share what they’re looking for – and what they aren’t – when it comes to book submissions.

Addendum: some of you have asked about online reviewers. Queries were emailed to several, but no answers were received at the time of publication. Plans are already in place for a second post, and any answers that I receive in the prior will be printed then. In the meanwhile, feel free to leave your own “rookie mistakes” and “ideal submissions” below. As an alternative, you can email me directly at mattormeg@gmail.com for inclusion in a future post.

Ron Charles, Deputy Editor, Washington Post Book World:

What are some rookie mistakes writers and publishers make when submitting a book for review?

Writers should not submit books for review.  We want to deal only with writers’ publishers (and no self-published books, please, or cleverly disguised self-published books).  Do not call to ask if we received your book.  We have no idea. We’re getting 150 books a day. We only know if we’ve assigned your book.  And in that case, we’ll contact you; no need to call us.

Use e-mail only. Never call. Never write through the PO. Do not include gifts or bling.  We cannot accept anything. Make sure your press kit tells us exactly when the book will be released.  Remind us of relevant holidays and anniversaries.

What is the subject, in just a couple of sentences? What are the author’s qualifications and previous books?  You can include much more information below that, but try to get our attention with the brief summary first.

In short: We need short, detailed, succinct information.  We’re moving too fast for flattery or throat-clearing or fireworks.

Lev Grossman, book critic, Time Magazine:

What are some rookie mistakes writers and publishers make when submitting a book for review?

There are two major rookie mistakes, and they’re so obvious you wouldn’t think they’d be worth mentioning, but they are:

Do not call the magazine. Ever. Put your phone down. If every publicist called about every book they did — or every 10th book — my phone would never stop ringing. And it never does. I no longer answer my work phone, ever. And don’t even talk to me about authors calling — just not a good idea. Mail works fine.

In the pitch letter/e-mail, right up front, right after the title and the author, tell me the on-sale date. To review a book, I have to schedule it. If I don’t know when it’s coming out, I literally can’t review it. Don’t make me hunt through Amazon to find the shipping date. (I will do that. but I won’t enjoy it.)

What would an ideal submission for review look like?

It would consist of three parts. No more, No fewer. One: a galley, three months before publication, with a one-page pub letter (consisting of the title, the author, the pub date, plot summary, any blurbs, and a paragraph telling me who the hell the author is). Two: a single (1) e-mail, a month before publication, reminding me that the book is coming out and why I should care. Three: a finished book, also a month before publication.

Michael Berry, science fiction columnist, book critic, San Francisco Chronicle:

What are some rookie mistakes writers and publishers make when submitting a book for review?

The biggest mistake by far is that people don’t take the time to research what kinds of books I personally review for The Chronicle. Search the SFGate.com archives for my byline (or even look at my blog or Twitter feed or whatever), and it becomes clear that my overwhelming focus is on science fiction/fantasy/horror. I occasionally cover crime/mystery or comics, but I’m never going to review your memoir of your years at Bear Stearns or a self-help book on overcoming anxiety after being bitten by a Great White. I’ll politely direct you to the Books editor, but I will not encourage you to send your book to me.

My big peeve with publishers is when they don’t provide sufficient contact info ON THE ARC. The press release sheets get lost or discarded, and I have not taken the time to build my own database of publicist phone numbers and e-mail addresses. When I need a finished copy or have a question, I’m usually on a deadline and I don’t want to waste time working my way up the corporate voice-mail tree.

What would an ideal submission for review look like?

As for the ideal submission, it’s really just a well-designed ARC with the proper contact info. I never read press releases, and shwag won’t sway me. A gentle, “hey, you might be interested…” e-mail from an author or publicist can be effective, especially if the writer is local to the Bay Area. But everyone needs to understand that I can consider only the tiniest fraction of the material I receive every week.

Amy Guth, books digital coordinator for the Chicago Tribune:

What are some rookie mistakes writers and publishers make when submitting a book for review?

Three big ones: I get a ton of books each week here at the Chicago Tribune, and while I read, I have several on-deck to read next. I’m never, ever without something to read, and never in a position to skip anything ahead to the front of the reading list. So, while I welcome blind submissions, I cringe when an author or book publicist spends a fortune on postage to overnight or 2-day it to me unless I’ve specifically requested it to be sent on the double. Secondly, unless it’s a very delicate specialty sort of book, when a book has a ton of wrapping on it, around it, over it, through it, above it and below it, it drives me crazy. When I’m sitting there ripping open a stack of incoming books and I need to spend several minutes cutting through bubble wrap, shrink wrap, packing tape, then pulling off tissue paper, and pulling out the vellum sheets inside the book, it’s a mess. (Interestingly, I’ve found that to be symbolic in many cases; people who are so ginger about their books that they’d pack them so carefully tend to not be terribly open to critical discussion of the book either.) Just an envelope or bubble mailer will do the job, I promise. Finally, I’m always sorry to see gimmicky or cocky cover letters. Let your work speak for itself, really. A cover letter telling me I’m about to read the greatest book in the world, or that’s written in code only visible with 3-D glasses, or trying to conceal something about the author, publisher or book will only turn me off to it. But, a professional, honest, courteous cover letter or email is always welcome and always starts things off on the right foot.  There is a weird desperate sense in a lot of cover letters that we’re an awful bunch of gatekeepers who delight in throwing books into the rubbish bin. I think all too often authors forget that critics and editors are rooting for them; we want their work to be great. We got into the literary world because we love good writing, too.

What would an ideal submission for review look like?

Just mail it. A simple manila envelope or bubble mailer and a professional, polished cover letter and a brief press release if it’s available. That’s it. Sometimes an email or Twitter DM to let me know the book is en route is a nice touch, too. But that’s really it. My father said something to me once about the importance of doing the solid, ordinary and simple things impeccably, and I think that absolutely applies here wonderfully.

n653213921_1671825_1056996Matt Staggs is a literary publicist and the proprietor of Deep Eight LLC, a boutique publicity agency utilizing the best publicity practices from the worlds of traditional media and evolving social technologies. He has worked in the fields of public relations and journalism for almost a decade. In addition to his work as a publicist, Matt is a book reviewer and writer whose work appears in both print and web publications.

A Grim Future for America’s Bookstore Chains?

Marketing maven and provocateur Seth Godin has the blogosphere talking today with his post “It’s not the rats you need to worry about.” Godin stated that online bookseller Amazon and the Kindle had done to bookstores what iTunes and filesharing did to the once-profitable music store chain Tower Records: rendered them obsolete and even an impediment to the customers who matter most, heavy users. Godin stated that bookstores depend on shoppers who buy one hundred to three hundred books a year and that the Kindle, which offers near-instantaneous delivery, more variety and a less expensive format, is incentive enough to abandon the bookstore.

Certainly, it has been a tough year for the major chains. Borders Group narrowly avoided bankruptcy when creditor Pershing Square Capital Management agreed to extend the pay-off date of a nearly $43 million loan, allowing it an opportunity to take numerous cost-cutting measures, including the closure of 100 Waldenbooks locations. Competitor Barnes & Noble fared better, but experienced hardships of its own as it headed into the holiday season with reported quarterly losses.

Both chains have already taken steps to capitalize on the growing e-market. Borders Group began selling the Sony Reader in its stores some years back, and Barnes & Noble launched its own branded e-reader this year, the Nook. Further, Borders Group announced plans this month to invest in Kobo, an e-book content delivery service spun off from Canadian book chain, Indigo Books & Music. But is all of this enough to save the brick-and-mortar chain bookstore in America? Probably not.

When it comes to the e-reader’s natural habitat, the internet, Amazon holds the home field advantage. Online since 1995, the company’s website attracts over six hundred million visitors annually, has no storefronts to maintain and is already a trusted name in e-commerce. The Kindle reader is estimated by some to already hold up to 60 percent of the US market share in e-book sales. Further, along with big box retailers Walmart and Target, Amazon is putting the squeeze on chain bookstores in the hard copy arena as well by offering selected popular hardbacks for as little as $9 a piece. From any perspective, it doesn’t look good for the long-term future of the big chains.

As the reading public becomes accustomed to e-readers, the market for paper books will grow smaller, limited to collectors of special editions and a dwindling sliver of customers who refuse to embrace e-reader technology. Chain bookstores may wake up to find their commanding share of the American marketplace greatly diminished, forcing them to cut fat, consolidate resources and focus on winning the hearts and minds of local customers. In this arena, they may face great competition from not only Amazon and whatever e-reader platform that’s left to pick up the crumbs, but also the surviving independent bookstores, many of whom have had years to sharpen these very same techniques in their own war against the once-mighty chains.

n653213921_1671825_1056996Matt Staggs is a literary publicist and the proprietor of Deep Eight LLC, a boutique publicity agency utilizing the best publicity practices from the worlds of traditional media and evolving social technologies. He has worked in the fields of public relations and journalism for almost a decade. In addition to his work as a publicist, Matt is a book reviewer and writer whose work appears in both print and web publications.

Booklife Essentials: Knowing the Lifecycle of a Book

(The remains of writers who never did understand the lifecycle of a book. Photo by the highly recommended Jeremy Tolbert.)

In this first week at Booklifenow, it’s important to provide a breakdown of the lifecycle of a book. While this information might appear basic, very few first-time authors seem to receive it prior to publication. As a result, many writers are unable to take advantage of possible opportunities. Even worse, not knowing what happens when results in the following unfortunate scenarios: writers asking for things at the wrong time, writers not understanding their role during a given part of the process, writers being really irritable about quick turn-arounds on tasks like approving edits, and editors wasting time answering questions that could be forestalled with some simple documentation.

If there’s one way that agents and editors could help their writers it would be by not assuming any prior knowledge of this lifecycle—although it is true that the process can change from publisher to publisher. (The lack of internal documentation of process at most publishers is a bit of a crime.)

The process set out below the cut constitutes a general breakdown of events and timing issues that occur during the lifecycle of a book. A week-by-week breakdown would be too long for a blog post. (I recommend supplementing the information I give you below with Colleen Lindsay’s excellent post on working with publicists.)

However, the traditional lifecycle doesn’t approach the “book” as a mutable object that can take many different forms in the modern era. If you boil the process down, stripping off the detail and making a “book” a more fluid creature, the lifecycle roughly becomes:

• Creation and perfection of content.
• Acquisition of a platform (or format) for the content.
• Creation and perfection of the “skin” (aesthetic) and context for the content.
• Accessibility to the content.
• Visibility for the content.

In creating your plans for your book, always keep this simplified version of the lifecycle in mind. It helps focus your efforts by reminding you of what’s important.

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